December 17, 2007

Sermon for Gaudete - Matthew 11.2-11

Joseph Conrad’s classic work Heart of Darkness takes place in the barbaric world of nineteenth-century ivory trading in the Congo. On the surface, the “darkness” appears 3to be unenlightened, undeveloped, uncivilized Africa. But the real darkness that Morrow, the main character, discovers is the darkness in men’s hearts, no matter where they are from or how civilized. Of that darkness we prefer to be oblivious. The movie Apocalypse Now was based on Heart of Darkness, changing the setting from the Congo to Vietnam, and bringing into our popular culture the line from the book, “The horror! The horror!” Those words also formed the original epigraph to T.S. Eliot’s famous poem, The Wasteland.

The horror of human existence is the darkness in our hearts. Winter festivals of light come during the darkest time of the year, when the hours of sunlight are few. We use these festivals—along with food, drink, and an orgy of presents—to try to scatter the darkness. But the gloom remains. Your problems persist, your bills increase, your death draws ever closer.

And then, there are the dark things in your life you fear will be exposed. Your public persona says you are one kind of person; but what you do, what you dream of, what haunts you in the darkness is quite different. You don’t need to go to the Congo, or Vietnam, to discover the darkness. It is within you. Look at yourself honestly, and you also will utter that famous line: “The horror! The horror!”

In the Confession of Sins that begins the Divine Service, we dare to reveal--but only in a general sense--some of the horror of our dark hearts and the hell we deserve: “We have sinned.... We have not loved.... We justly deserve ... eternal punishment.” Yet on the Third Sunday of Advent—today—we see that the Light is coming, the Light no darkness can overcome. Jesus Christ is the Light of the world, and directly to Him today’s prayer is addressed: “Lord Jesus Christ … lighten the darkness of our hearts by Your gracious visitation.”

If you sometimes lose sight of the Light that illumines our darkness, if you sometimes lose hope and are overcome by your addictions, your anger, your depression, you are not alone. In today’s Gospel, the disciples of John the Baptist lost sight of the light. John is in prison, and King Herod, who would not deny in his lust, will eventually order John’s head cut off.

Mark this well: John the Baptist does not waver. He is no reed shaken by the wind. Before he was born, John was confessing Christ, leaping for joy in mother Elizabeth’s womb upon hearing the voice of the blessed virgin Mary. John feared no man; his preaching condemned Pharisees and kings. The son of a priest, his temple was the desert, to which the people thronged to hear the last and greatest prophet. There John confessed Jesus to be the Lamb of God – the One who would take away the world’s sin. If the Lamb will suffer, bleed, die – will the one who is not worthy to loose the Lamb’s sandal-strap fare better?

No, John does not waver. But it seems his disciples do. “How can this be happening? None of this is turning out as we thought! All those people who came for baptism, confessing their sins; all our faithfulness – is this where it leads: to suffering? We prayed, master, the prayers you taught us. Does God not hear them? Will it all end like this? And this Jesus, master – he is nothing like you. He drinks wine, while we have abstained. He is not eating locusts in the desert, John, but breaking bread with the Pharisees one night, and dining with tax collectors and sinners the next! We’re not sure which is worse. How can he be the One, the Coming One, the Prophet foretold by Moses, the Christ, the Messiah, the Lamb who will take away the world’s sin? Are you sure, master, that you are right? Perhaps we are to look for another.”

And John does what any faithful preacher does. He points the disciples to Jesus. “Go,” John says, “and ask Jesus your question.” They come to Jesus, with all their doubt, all their confusion, all their pride. Jesus looks at them and loves them; He knows that soon they will be grief-stricken, tenderly cradling John’s headless corpse and lovingly preparing it for burial; eyes gushing tears, throats choking sobs. In “The Wasteland,” Eliot said, “I will show you fear in a handful of dust.” What at last does this world leave us, but a hand full of sand, or some loss to grieve us?

For that is the destiny of man after the fall. Enjoy your presents and your egg nog, for tomorrow you die. I will show you fear in a handful of dust. All flesh, all human beings are like the grass. Look outside! See the death on the ground? Behold your future. “All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades.”

What comfort can Jesus give to those disciples who come with their questions, with their doubts, with their fears? What comfort can He give to you, who face the darkness of the world, the darkness of the night, the darkness of death, the darkness of your soul? Will you escape on the Last Day when the Lord comes and brings to light the things now hidden in darkness, and discloses the purposes of your heart? Or will the door be closed, will you hear the true voice of horror, “I never knew you”? Will you then be shut out into the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth? What comfort can Jesus give?

Jesus gives no idea or philosophy; He gives no moral program or self-improvement techniques. He does not encourage, motivate, or provide a helping hand. He doesn’t help them help themselves. “Look,” He says, “at what you see Me do: ‘The blind see and the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear; the dead are raised up and the poor have the gospel preached to them.’” These are the signs that God has come to rescue His people. These are the signs that God has remembered, that He Himself has come into our horror to scatter the darkness. The disciples of John will still bury their master’s body - but they will remember that their master pointed them to his Master--the Lord Jesus--who raised bodies from the dead and will do so again. Into the horror and darkness of the grave Jesus Himself goes, and emerges triumphant. In Him, death has lost its sting.

So the word for the day, the name for this day, is Gaudete--a plural imperative: “All of you, rejoice!” For God does lighten the darkness of our hearts. He has spoken peace to you; do not turn back to folly. Don’t go back to the darkness; that is not who you are. Don’t give in to the horror of your sinful nature - you don’t have to live in sin. The Father who made you sent His Son to redeem you and gives the Holy Spirit to sanctify you, to make you holy. That is who you are: created, redeemed, made holy.

So whether you are like John the Baptist’s disciples, wavering and uncertain; whether you have, as they did, buried one you loved; whether you struggle at home with marriage and family problems; whether you struggle in the darkness with your loneliness; whether you are haunted by your past or frightened by the shadows; whether you have given in so many times to the same sin that it seems like there is no hope left; whoever you are, listen today to John the Baptist, telling us to look only to Jesus. In Jesus, the incarnate God, we find the Light no darkness can overcome. In Him is forgiveness of your sins; in Him is your horror slain; in Him is death defeated; in Him is love; in Him is life. Look to Jesus, your salvation, and rejoice! +INJ+

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